Wren Dalton started working at Save Milwaukee Escape Rooms a few months ago. He is studying game theory and design at UWM. This led him to reflect on how escape rooms are continuing to evolve, and how the fast rate of change in the escape room industry may mean that how escape rooms started may be quickly forgotten. Here’s what he wrote:

Escaping Obscurity

Recently Marble Hornets, the darling web-series of the Slenderman variety, experienced a blip in its archival. For some reason, the original roster of tweets associated with the alternate reality game (ARG) were mass removed from twitter and needed to be reuploaded. Outside of demonstrating that Marble Hornet’s 2010/2012 player-base had long abandoned their twitter handles, the event has served as a community reminder about how ephemeral immersive escape room experiences really can be. Escape rooms are, of course, another kind of immersive experience – though one less likely to use twitter accounts as a game mechanic. As it stands there is no large-scale effort to archive escape rooms, and if there are small scale efforts to archive escape rooms I can’t seem to locate them. Perhaps it’d be a good idea to consider what a possible escape room archive would look like.

              Or, maybe a better question: what would the goals of an escape room archive be? Escape Rooms are remarkably ephemeral for their lack of transience. With escape rooms all over the world and puzzles based on disparate locale cultures, a great number of escape rooms have no-doubt already faded into obscurity. As designers to improve existing puzzles and tune existing rooms, older versions are also likely to escape documentation. Clearly, one goal of such an archive would have to be the preservation of the puzzles, the explicit game mechanics of the escape rooms, and their related physical media. Perhaps this could simply be done with pictures and texts, a sort of “IGN walkthrough” experience. But focusing solely on mechanics would downplay the importance of the dramatic elements of the experience design. The narrative, clueing, and interior design of an escape room provide the motivation for the player to escape and so a robust documentation of these elements would be similarly necessary.

              While a set of photos could document the look of any escape room, and a simple sound recording could gather room tone or background music, more improvisational elements of narrative are more difficult to archive. How will the clue be phrased? How will the introduction be delivered? If the escape room has a failure state, how is that documented? Since all of these moving parts rely on moment-to-moment interaction fixed documentation becomes impossible. I’d propose doing a mix of recording audio/video and interviews with actors/designers. This would give a sense of one version of a possible complete experience and offer the reader to see places that actors/designers vary their approach to the escape room. Of course, the written and tested narrative and game design are not the only components to an escape room, there’s also the even less tangible experience of the players themselves.

              Archiving experience is always a far more difficult procedure than archiving media. People often offer different retellings of the same moments, individual experience is difficult to predict on principle, and an interviewer inherently skews the outcome of any interview. That being said, offering a place for users to (following certain guidelines) post stories of their attempts to solve existing escape rooms could offer an effective way of capturing some of these player experiences. Perhaps priming the player with details that would be helpful for the archive, a list of questions to respond to, or common threads would be useful. The long and short of it is that a sort of narrative of play, an “auto-ethnography”, that players could add to the archive of any escape room would offer an incredible resource to researchers and designers alike. Instead of constructing a sense of the player and their impulses, designers/researchers could view of the player constructs their own experiences. The result of even a handful of these little tales could have stirring implications for the assumptions we make about player experience.

              All of this is, of course, highly speculative. Imagining some sort of “escape the archive” experience is fun but it doesn’t get us anywhere if the industry isn’t interested in archival. Escape rooms have become a fixture of popular culture though, and it’s hard to imagine they are going anywhere. Seeing as they offer a window into the present social context, a case for the importance of their archiving is relatively easy to make. And with large scale projects in other parts of the modern games industry, like the Video Games History Foundation, it’s maybe not so difficult to imagine the possibility of a non-profit archival initiative in the next five years. And until then, simply discussing the value of archival within the industry is a good way of moving the needle forward.

by Wren Dalton


Link for term: (Video Games History Foundation) https://gamehistory.org/

Link for term: (Marble Hornets) https://www.youtube.com/user/MarbleHornets

Link for term: (roster of tweets) https://twitter.com/marblehornets

Link for term: (IGN Walkthrough) https://www.ign.com/wikis/control/Walkthrough

photo credit: “File:Litography archive of the Bayerisches Vermessungsamt.jpg” by Chris 73 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0